The Bill will enact the provisions which were agreed by the Smith Commission. It will seek to reflect the spirit and substance of the recommendations agreed in the Commission. Whatever the outcome, it currently signals a significant step change and the rest of the UK will take note as regional devolution creeps higher up the agenda.
Talking about it at a Glasgow University event in October, Professor Jim Galbraith said it was a “Constitutional settlement for Scotland which enables the country to run quite a different social model from the rest of the UK while still sharing important risks”.
The Commission’s proposals cover three broad areas:
- A stable constitutional settlement, which will see Scotland having powers over its Parliament and electoral system.
- The devolution of general welfare powers.
- The implementation of financial powers, which will see the Parliament having power to set rates and thresholds of Income Tax.
The Bill, published in May 2015, promotes the devolution of the following powers to the Scottish Parliament:
- Full devolution of Income Tax rates and thresholds for non-saving and nondividend incomes
- Devolution of Air Passenger Duty, Aggregates Levies, and the first ten percentage points of the Standard Rate of VAT
- Power to create new benefits and top up existing UK benefits, including those under Universal Credit
- Benefits to carer’s including, Attendance Allowance, Carer’s Allowance, Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independence Allowance, Industrial Injuries Disablement Allowance, Severe Disablement Allowance
- Regulated Social Fund benefits including, Cold Weather Payments, Funeral Payments, Sure Start, Maternity Grant and Winter Fuel Payments.
- Recognition of the Scottish Government and Parliament as permanent institutions
- Powers in relation to Scottish and Local Authority Elections, including the franchise, spending limits, periods and party political broadcasts
- Management of the Crown Estate’s economic assets and the revenues generated, which will lead to the ‘double devolution’ of powers in relation to the seabed, urban assets, rural estates, mineral and fishing rights and the foreshore
- Licensing of onshore oil and gas extraction
- Consumer advocacy and advice powers
- Powers to prevent the proliferation of payday lenders and fixed-odds betting terminals
At the time of writing, the Bill is awaiting its Report Stage in the House of Commons before it enters the House of Lords for debate. It will also be passed through the Scottish Parliament at the same time as its passage through Westminster via a Legislative Consent Motion. Scottish Secretary, David Mundell MP has promised that no substantive amendments will be brought to the House of Lords primarily because there are no SNP peers.
The numerous clauses put forward by the opposition parties were rejected at the committee stage of the Bill. However, Mr Mundell has since indicated that a number of additional amendments to the Bill are being introduced.
One key amendment that is expected will look at ensuring the permanency of the Scottish Parliament and the first confirmed change was the devolution of abortion law.
Throughout the process we understand that relations between the Scottish Office, led by Mr Mundell, and the Scottish Government are productive and professional.
It will be important that this approach follows through to implementation. There is a review of intergovernmental relations underway which is a key step but tactical frameworks need to be established. Governance of the fiscal powers and framework is still under discussion, for example. It will be important that a mechanism to avoid dispute is in place.
The Scottish Government had committed to setting out its vision of how the new welfare powers contained in the Scotland Bill could best be used by the end of 2015.
Mr Mundell has said the Scottish Government would be able to ‘top up’ tax credits and child benefit payments as part of new powers over welfare: "Scottish government ministers will be able to design a significant part of Scotland's welfare system and control income tax to pay for it.
"If they want to top up existing benefits, they will be able to. If they want to introduce payments to those in short-term need, or design new benefits in those welfare areas being devolved, that will also be an option available to them.”
While the Bill clearly has constitutional significance. It is worth noting that the provisions of the Bill as it stands won’t have a profound impact on Scottish Government departments or agencies, apart from where programmes such as the Work Programme are being devolved.
Compare this to the Westminster Spending Review in November which had a more immediate impact on Scotland’s public sector as it confirmed Scotland’s funding for the next spending period.
The assertion that ‘the only thing that is constant is change’ is clearly apt. It will be interesting to see how the Scotland Bill finally looks when it is receives Royal Assent, expected in early 2016. We’ll have to be more patient to see the impact of the Bill as the actual enactment of the powers will take much longer.